Active-duty service members among the 143 million Americans affected by the Equifax data breach may be more vulnerable to its potential fallout, one consumer advocacy group said.
“Since active-duty servicemembers frequently move due to Permanent Change of Station orders, this can make it even harder to quickly learn if they’ve had their identities stolen,” wrote Rohit Chopra, senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America, in a recent blog.
This theft of personal information can create financial nightmares for service members and their families, he said. “If thieves can open accounts with the service member’s knowledge, this can lead to a credit report overflowing with unpaid debts ― a sure way to get a security clearance revoked and short circuit a military career if left unresolved,” he said.
Just because you’ve received no notification that your data has been stolen doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. If you have a credit report, chance are good that your data was exposed, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
What you need to know about the breach, and how to protect yourself:
According to Equifax, criminals gained access to certain files in a period from mid-May through July, which also happens to be the heavy moving season for military families. The breach wasn’t announced until Sept. 7.
The information stolen includes names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, in some cases, driver’s license numbers. About 209,000 Americans had their credit card numbers stolen, and criminals hacked into certain financial dispute documents with personal identifying information for about 182,000 consumers.
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The other 143 million people need to go to Equifax’s dedicated security website to find out whether their information was stolen. Equifax has reconfigured it to put a prominent button on their site clearly directing you where to go to find out if you’re affected, and to sign up for free identity theft protection and credit file monitoring.
Chopra urges all military families to consider initiating an active-duty alert or a security freeze with the major credit bureaus.
The active-duty alert is free; Equifax, Experian and TransUnion each have a web page to request the alert. You can sign up with one of the agencies, and the law requires each company to notify the other credit reporting agency.
Potential lenders will still be able to access your credit report, but they’ll hopefully be spurred to be on the lookout for fraud. The alert lasts for 12 months unless you remove it sooner; your name will be removed for two years from credit reporting agencies’ pre-screening lists for credit offers and insurance, unless you request otherwise.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has received hundreds of complaints from deployed service members who reported damage to their credit reports because of identity theft or other misuses of their accounts, the bureau said. But few of these reported initiating an active-duty alert before they deployed.
The security freeze isn’t free for everyone, but fees are generally capped under state law. Chopra urges military families to consider the freeze. This locks down your credit report; lenders, prospective landlords and employers won’t be able to access it. You’ll have to place a freeze with each credit reporting agency, and you’ll have to take steps to remove the freeze when you want to use the credit record.
Some steps you can take whether you’ve been affected by this breach or are worried about the next one:
3. Check your credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com. By law, you can get a free credit report every 12 months from each of the three credit reporting agencies. Space them out so you can check your credit every four months, rather than all three once a year. Look for charges you didn’t authorize, or new accounts you didn’t open.